James I and VI liked to term himself Rex Pacificus. Like most politicians who talk a lot about working for peace, he was an appeaser. Inheriting the English throne after Elizabeth, whose foreign policy was defined by breaking Spanish dominance, James appears to have seen the purpose of his own Whitehall government as being to facilitate every Spanish demand. The first high-profile victim of James’s Iberophilia was the war hero and poet Sir Walter Raleigh. Within four months of Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, Raleigh was on trial for treason under the new regime. His death sentence was commuted until 1618, when it was carried out at the direct request of the Spanish ambassador.
Shakespeare’s Globe is staging the trial of Walter Raleigh as a piece of theatre this month. Or ‘Ralegh’, as the programme would have it, using the spelling its hero used most frequently. (Early modern orthography was at best irregular.) Actor-director Oliver Chris — who also tackled constitutional issues in a high-profile turn as Prince William in King Charles III — has spent more than two years working through the original sources for Raleigh’s trial to produce an educated estimate at verbatim transcripts. This being 2018, there’s an immersive twist: 12 members of the audience each night get to serve on the jury. Supposedly, they could even vote to acquit, although one suspects that the clerk of the court might engage in some authentically Jacobean arm-twisting.
It’s a great idea. For those of us who endured Emma Rice’s anti-academic interregnum at Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s a delight to see the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse being used for its intended purpose — to bring us closer to the experience and practices of Jacobean performance. (Trials in 1603, as in 2018, were surely theatrical performances.) Raleigh’s trial is a moment in British history that gives us a view of London at the crux of massive change. In 1603, England and Scotland are uneasily getting to know each other better; newly united by personal rule but still a century off becoming Great Britain. The divine right of kings is asserted by the new monarch, but the critiques that will catch fire 30 years later during the Civil War are emerging. (Raleigh advocated for a highly limited interpretation of divine right — no wonder James didn’t like him.) Religious sectarianism is omnipresent. Two Novembers later, Guy Fawkes will be arrested in the bowels of Parliament.
Even the basic principles of England’s laws seemed up for grabs in 1603. Raleigh’s trial was held as a special commission of oyer and terminer — a court to which the king appointed ‘special commissioners’, allowing him to stack the jury. The format would later notoriously be used for the Salem witch trials. Staging Raleigh’s trial today means inviting a modern audience to observe the theatre of an authoritarian state in close-up. Special commissioner Robert Cecil, arch-enforcer of King James’s will, stalks the stage.
Hence the potential strangeness of Oliver Chris’s ploy to let a 21st-century audience into the jury box. Read the original transcripts of Raleigh’s case, and you see early modern ideas on trial. To James’s royal commissioners, Raleigh’s Elizabethan English nationalism represented a dangerous nostalgia for the previous regime, while his theories about governance were the first seditious whiff of an intellectual revolution that in the next generation would become a civil war. Shutting down Raleigh’s ideas was an attempt both to break with the past and to ward off the future.
So will the members of our panel be asked to think like a modern jury or a Jacobean one? Will they be prejudiced against Raleigh — as those in 1603 almost certainly were — thanks to a previous investigation into rumours of his atheism? Will they instead despise the ‘dwarfish’ Robert Cecil, whom Elizabeth I had nicknamed ‘my pygymy’ and who is played in this production by the accomplished actor and disability activist Simon Startin? Unlikely and clearly for the best. But without a meaningful immersion in the early modern imagination, volunteering for Jacobean jury service might look like little more than amateur re-enactment.
Oliver Chris, when I put this to him, points out that he’s placed the original language of the Raleigh trial in the mouths of actors in modern dress. ‘It’s not an exclusively 21st-century world, or an exclusively Jacobean world — it’s about creating a place where the two worlds can meet.’ Which means we could be in for Olde Worlde pontificating with added coffee cups, or we could be in for a serious exploration of human rights law in a Whitehall that looks worryingly like our own. The presence of heavyweight actors — Nathalie Armin as Attorney General Sir Edward Coke, Simon Paisley Day as Raleigh — promises the latter, but it’s a risk.
It will also be difficult to wrench maximum drama out of a death sentence that wasn’t carried out until 15 years after Raleigh’s trial. The Globe’s production is firmly set in 1603, when Raleigh was tried for treason — dubiously — as an accessory to a plot to depose James in favour of his cousin Arbella Stuart. But James’s decision to commute Raleigh’s death sentence, under heavy public pressure, was only one more twist in the tale. Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower until 1616, but he was too good an explorer for the English crown to waste, so that year he was released to head an expedition to Venezuela — on strict condition that he avoid all conflict with Spanish explorers in the region. He singularly failed to do so and worse, he failed to find El Dorado. After an expedition marked by conflict with the Spanish and the death of his only surviving son Wat, Raleigh returned to London to face the music. His long-suspended death sentence was finally carried out at the explicit request of — inevitably — the Spanish ambassador.
That’s all a bit much to cram into a two-hour courtroom drama in Southwark, which leaves one wondering if this latest piece of ‘verbatim’ theatre will really be ‘verbatim’. A little bit of cheating won’t make Ralegh: The Treason Trial unusual. It’s been popular in recent years to stage trials and inquiries into contemporary controversies — with a bit of dramatic shaping. In 1999 The Colour of Justice deftly condensed 11,000 pages of transcripts from the Macpherson inquiry to put on view the murder of Stephen Lawrence and all the lies that followed it. By contrast, the Donmar Warehouse belly-flopped last year with Committee, a musical staging of the select committee hearings into the Kids Company collapse. It’s never a good sign when Bernard Jenkin MP (played by Alexander Hanson) is leading the song-and-dance numbers.
It’s even harder to claim ‘verbatim’ authenticity for historical dramas when sources conflict and original language can sound impenetrable. The most obvious precursor for Ralegh is Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a lefty hit in 1976 but less successfully staged by the National Theatre three years ago. Churchill’s big idea was to stage the surviving transcripts of the Putney Debates of 1647, in which Cromwell’s New Model Army debated their ideal of a British constitution. But much of the play consists of framing scenes written by Churchill to add some necessary historical context. ‘Inequality bad; Levellers good’ is the message — but with every addition the text gets further away from anything Oliver Cromwell would have understood.
The persistent question is whether ‘authenticity’ in historical drama is ever possible or even advantageous. Originalists will point out that Raleigh’s trial didn’t take place in a wood-panelled interior playhouse, but against the Gothic stone of Winchester Great Hall. (Ralegh has three performances in Winchester before transferring to the Playhouse.) Should we only re-enact it in 13th-century venues, rather than 21st-century replicas of the Jacobean? Oliver Chris tells me he fell in love with Raleigh through Margaret Irwin’s highly romanticised 1960 biography That Great Lucifer — a kaleidoscope of period colour — but he clearly has something to say about the drab bureaucracy of injustice in the 21st century. If Ralegh gets it wrong, it’s going to end up looking like a skit on a Tower of London guided tour. If it gets it right, it will allow the modern and the early modern imaginations to touch, just briefly.